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Shelter House Breaks Ground On New 'Housing First' Development

Iowa City-based homeless services agency Shelter House has broken ground on its latest "housing first" development, which will provide long-term affordable housing units to those with the greatest need.
Kate Payne
Iowa City-based homeless services agency Shelter House has broken ground on its latest "housing first" development, which will provide long-term affordable housing units to those with the greatest need.

A homeless services agency in Iowa City formally broke ground on its latest “housing first” development Thursday. Shelter House’s The 501 Project will ultimately provide supportive, long-term housing to people experiencing chronic homelessness, regardless of drug or alcohol use. Backers say the affordable housing units will “save both money and lives."

Shelter House staffers hope The 501 Project will soon house 36 men and women. Once built, the one bedroom apartments can become a permanent home, if that’s what tenants choose.

The development will provide long-term affordable housing to residents most in need of shelter. More than a roof over their heads, residents will also receive case management services, including help with independent living skills and onsite check-ins with health care providers and mental health counselors.

The units are reserved for those considered “chronically homeless," a technical classification that entails repeated or extended periods of homelessness as well as one or more diagnosed disabilities.

The apartments will cost 30 percent of a tenant’s income, regardless of how much they make.

“No more than 30 percent of their income,” said Shelter House Executive Director Crissy Canganelli. “And if income is zero, it’s zero.”

Canganelli says the rent cap is made possible through a partnership with the Iowa City Housing Authority, which has provided project-based vouchers.

Prospective tenants will be identified through a coordinated process in which service providers throughout Johnson and Washington Counties will identify qualifying clients and prioritize them based on the acuity of their needs.

The project will follow the housing first model, which “does not place conditions of housing on the behavior of participants, but instead provides subsidized housing with the ongoing option to participate in supportive services”, according to Shelter House’s website.

While other agencies make certain conditions such as sobriety or employment a prerequisite to qualify for housing, the housing first model posits that residents will be better equipped to achieve their other goals once their basic housing needs are met.

Canganelli says the approach has been “proven to save both money and lives”; the agency’s statistics on its Cross Park Place units, another housing first development, show tenants there have seen a dramatic decrease in law enforcement and emergency room interactions.

“It ranges from about 70 to about 90 percent, depending on the timeframe, decreases in criminal justice involvement. So nights in jail. And we’re not talking about 25 nights down to two or something like that. This is thousands of nights down to...minimal,” Canganelli said.

Meanwhile, tenants are seeking routine, preventive health care at much higher rates.

“What we’re seeing is increasing utilization of like ongoing care and preventive care and the regular health services that you want people to engage in to be well and to address their health concerns, but really substantial decreases in the emergency health system,” Canganelli said.

Apart from the statistical analysis, Canaganelli says having access to permanent, dependable, affordable housing has fundamentally changed how residents move through the world.

“I wish that we had taken pictures before and after,” Canganelli said, “just visibly seeing people, there is such a fundamental difference, and that’s what I was meaning, like on a cellular level, there’s such a fundamental difference in people’s appearance, comportments, just their physicality.”

Construction on the 36 one bedroom apartments is slated to wrap up next May. If the work stays on schedules, tenants should be able to move in next June.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter